Talking Teaching

December 13, 2013

can we help students too much?

One of the (many) good things about writing exams at a national level was that it really taught me how to write a good question: one that lacks ambiguity, clearly identifies what’s being asked of the students, and gives them opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. So I was a bit saddened when marking exams recently to find that one question, in particular, wasn’t eliciting what I’d hoped for.

You see, I’d written a question in two parts. Students were first asked to summarise their knowledge the process of gene expression, and then – using the phrase “in your answer you should also” – asked to explain how various events might introduce diversity into the genome. And for some reason many students went straight past the first part and answered the second (and generally did this very well, I might add).

It’s the first time I’ve seen this to any marked degree and it really bothered me, & I’ve talked about it at some length with a colleague. We’re beginning to wonder if maybe we give students too much information around the exams. Now that may sound wrong – you’d think that demystifying exams, in the sense of giving access to previous papers so students get an idea of what to expect, would be helpful. It also highlights key themes in the subject that we return to again & again. We don’t just leave it at this, mind you: we spend time in tuts discussing things like how to ‘unpackage’ questions and how to plan the answer before actually writing it. But we’re wondering if making previous papers readily available in the study guide is leading to students ‘picking questions’ – deciding what’s likely to be asked, on the basis of what’s been asked in the past, and then not just studying around that but perhaps writing and learning ‘model’ answers off by heart. And regurgitating that answer regardless of what the question actually requires of them.

And that sort of learning is not the sort of learning I want to encourage.

So we decided to do things a little differently with next year’s study guide & include just a single year’s exam paper in it. Students will still be able to access many more through the library’s database; they’ll just have to do a bit more work themselves. And thinking more on this as I’m writing, perhaps we should also devote a bit of tut time to explicitly recognising those themes & working with the students to build up a ‘big picture’ view of the main ideas associated with them, by way of encouraging that breadth of understanding – and emphasising that this approach should allow them to approach with confidence any question we might ask.

Your thoughts?

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